A second major objective that has accelerated much of the small-group movement is the “quest for spirituality.” From his study of small groups, Wuthnow observed that a majority of all small-group adherents joined groups because they wanted to deepen their faith.31 This pursuit for spirituality identified with the small-group movement parallels or is no doubt connected to a religious intensity that exists on a much grander scale. In 1990 John Naisbitt and Patricia Aburdene identified a worldwide multidenominational religious revival leading into the next millennium, a trend characterized by intense interest in traditional and non-traditional religions alike.32 Christian counselor Gary Collins, also writing at the very end of the twentieth century, said something very similar, contending there is a new interest in spirituality that is invading our lives and engulfing the whole world at lightening speed. It is attracting teenagers, business executives, physicians, psychologists, academics, and homemakers. It is impacting worshipers in traditional churches as well as people seeking out alternative and New Age forms of spirituality.33
It is questionable that the heightened interest in spirituality that Naisbitt and Aburdene as well as Collins, predicted has come to pass. Clearly the New Age movement that was to enter us into a heightened awareness of alternative spirituality has not come to fruition. Regarding the Christian church itself, much has been made of the disinterest of young adults in the organized church and their exodus from organized religion. Drew Dyck argues, “There’s a major shift taking place—away from Christianity.”34 Kinnaman adds, “The ages eighteen to twenty-nine are the black hole of church attendance; this age segment is ‘missing in action’ from most congregations.”35 Research conducted by Barna Group confirms these observations. In a 2011 study of the spirituality of young adults, 59 percent of the respondents with a Christian background reported that they had “dropped out of attending church, after going regularly.”36 Wuthnow concludes that while “interest in spirituality may be widespread. . . serious engagement in spiritual practices, like regular participation in congregations, may be something young adults do not make time for until they are older.”37
Studies of church dropouts are not limited to young adults. George Barna and David Kinnaman in their 2014 book Churchless note that 33 percent of the American population is dechurched (once but no longer in church). Furthermore they indicate that this is the fastest growing segment of American population.38 However, Packard and Hope, who call these dechurched church refugees, argue that not all of them are rejecting Christianity or abandoning their spiritual journey. In fact “they’re still very much engaged in the work of seeking the divine and living out what they believe to be God’s will for their lives. In many cases, in fact, they’re even more involved in these activities after being freed from traditional organizational barriers.”39 Furthermore and worth noting as relevant to this book, they determined that many of the dechurched continued their spiritual quests through small groups, house churches, and other informal though spiritually meaningful gatherings.40
It is part of being human, of course, to be on a spiritual journey or on a quest to satisfy a deep inner hunger. Centuries ago the great church father Augustine wrote, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts can never rest until they rest in you.” Twentieth century existential writers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus wrote poignantly concerning the anxiety, anguish, alienation, emptiness, and loneliness that characterize lives lived without God. Indeed, for many Americans, their faith has become a significant part of their lives, and they have sought out others with whom they can pray and share common spiritual interests. Wuthnow observes that the contemporary small-group movement presupposes that individuals are concerned about developing their spirituality, but that spiritual development is not easy and requires encouragement and support. He likens developing one’s spirituality to learning to play a musical instrument. Hard work, practice, and a commitment to follow certain techniques are required, and the company of others may be required to sustain that discipline. Furthermore, that instrument may be played alone, but its value will be magnified if it is performed in harmony with others. And so it is with spirituality, it can be “played” or “practiced” in private, but its worth will be multiplied if performed in the company of others.41
Spiritual growth, like emotional and intellectual growth, does not take place in a vacuum. Rather, it is fostered and nurtured by interaction. God has given each of us gifts and abilities so that we can contribute to the growth of others. Unfortunately, these gifts and abilities often lie dormant. In small groups, however, Christians can help each other “fan into flame” the gifts God has given them.42
Harley T. Atkinson, The Power of Small Groups in Christian Formation (Eugene, Oregon: Resource Publications, 2018).